OMAK – The Omak mill has gone by several names during its nearly 100-year history.
Three buildings, including the former plywood plant, burned Sept. 8 in Cold Springs Fire.
The mill operation at 1100 Eighth Ave. began in 1921 when J.C. Biles and his partner, Nate Coleman, opened it on the east Omak site. They took over a box factory in east Omak and a sawmill at Cougarville on Omak Mountain.
The young company grew rapidly, even through Coleman withdrew during the first year.
Biles and his partners, including his son-in-law, Ross McNett, operated the mill until Biles’ death in 1932.
McNett then became president and operated the mill with leading stockholders - including John E. Maley, and Andy and Emmit Aston - until 1960.
A change in the board that year brought new officers and some new stockholders for the third ownership group. They operated the property - still known as Biles-Coleman Lumber Co. - for about 18 months, then sold to the first outside buyers in June 1962.
Heading the new ownership group was E.W. (Ed) Stuchel.
The McNett group survived the Great Depression and a long and acrimonious strike during the late 1930s. They led the mill into a period of prosperity that ran out in the recession of the late 1960s.
The Stuchel family and associates operated the mill for more than two decades. During the Stuchel years, manager Victor F. Jacobsen oversaw modernization of the plant and construction of a $5 million, state-of-the-art plywood plant that opened in 1970.
The name also was shortened from Biles-Coleman to Bico.
During the mill’s peak operating years, it employed more than 1,200 workers.
Stuchel sold to Crown Zellerbach in 1974, and in the years that followed the company experienced several setbacks, including a seven-month shutdown in the timber recession of 1981-82 and permanent closure of the factory and molding operations in November 1981. That portion of the operation once provided 400 jobs.
When operations resumed, the company had about 350 employees.
British financier Sir James Goldsmith acquired Crown Zellerbach in a stock takeover in 1985. He created Cavenham Forest Products Industries Inc. in May 1986.
Prosperity returned for a time, and at Cavenham’s peak, there were about 635 workers.
Employees bought out Goldsmith in 1988-89 and formed Omak Wood Products. The transaction made news nationwide, even garnering coverage by the New York Times.
Faced with downturns in the market and pressure on timber harvests for environmental reasons, the employees called it quits in 1997-98. The mill was purchased in July 1998 by Quality Veneer and Lumber, reopened in August 1998 and renamed Washington Veneer.
QVL went bankrupt in 2000 and closed the mill, which then had about 200 employees producing plywood.
The Colville Confederated Tribes purchased the mill in January 2002 for $5.8 million and renamed it Colville Indian Power and Veneer.
A 2006 fire heavily damaged the plant, which was rebuilt and reopened in 2007.
The tribe shut down its operations in 2009 and the mill was idle until operations restarted in 2013 under the Omak Wood Products name through a 25-year lease; Omak Wood Products was owned by Wood Resources and Atlas Holdings. The tribe supplied timber to the new company.
But just before Christmas 2015, Omak Wood Products announced that it planned to “exit operations” at the mill because of unforeseen circumstances, including changes in its corporate structure and an uncertain supply of timber.
Richard Yarbrough, who was CEO of the wood resources group with Omak Wood Products’ parent company, approached the company board and the tribe after the company announced its plans. A new company, Omak Forest Products, was the outcome.
Omak Forest Products began operations in February 2016. On Dec. 6 of that year, the tribe notified the company that it would no longer provide logs to the mill. Employees and the mid-valley community got an early lump of coal in their holiday stockings as the company announced it would cease operations in January 2017.
“Personally, I feel very frustrated,” Yarbrough said of the move that eventually put more than 100 tribal members out of work. “It makes no sense.”
“The decision to close the mill was not an easy one,” said then-Colville Business Council Chairman Michael Marchand. “The decision was made after lengthy discussions involving the (Colville Tribal Federal Corp.) Board and the Omak Forest Products, who were the lessors, to close the facility at this time.”
In the end, 217 jobs were lost.
About half of the hourly employees were tribal members and around 70 percent of the management positions were held by tribal members, Yarbrough said, noting the mill had a $10 million annual payroll.
For the previous year, the tribe had taken on the risk of mill profit or loss while a permanent mill operator was sought.
The mill suffered “a huge loss” in 2015 as OWP bowed out and the mill began processing tribal timber damaged in the North Star and Tunk Block fires, Yarbrough said. The mill was required to pay full price to the tribe, then try to market the lower-valued end product.
In its last year, the mill posted a smaller loss, although it made money in three months, he said.
The mill manufactured softwood veneer and Douglas fir plywood during its final days.
The property has been idle since then. In April 2018, the tribe auctioned off mill equipment.
Okanogan County Assessor’s Office records show the property owner as the Colville Tribal Federal Corp.